BRUSSELS, Belgium — You’d be forgiven for expecting an exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of a brand to chronicle its past designs.
Not so for Edouard Vermeulen, who created Natan in 1983 and has served as artistic director of the Belgian house favored by Europe’s female monarchs ever since.
What he wanted to do for “Natan 40 Years,” an exhibition organized at the city-owned Espace Vanderborght in collaboration with the Fashion Museum of the City of Brussels, is to make a “statement of our style today,” he told WWD ahead of its inauguration on Tuesday.
On screens are key moments, including shows from 1985 as well as interview clips of Vermeulen explaining tenets of the house style: “an architectural side, beautiful materials and simple shapes – a form of sobriety and minimalism [where] femininity prevails,” he explained in person.
Given pride of place is a celadon green day dress with softly pleated long sleeves and a matching shawl — Vermeulen’s very first design.
There is also a quartet of dresses, recently worn by Queen Mathilde of Belgium, her eldest daughter and heir apparent Princess Elisabeth, as well as Queen Maxima of the Netherlands.
But the last thing Vermeulen, who considers himself the “orchestra conductor of a young company,” wanted was a retrospective.
“It’s [about] 40 years but most of all, projecting into the coming years with our young teams to be contemporary, feminine clothing that is in step with today’s fashion,” said the artistic director.
The other 40-plus silhouettes presented across the venue’s two floors are from the fall 2023 couture collection. They include smart trouser suits, unfussy cape-coats, a midnight-blue gown with graphic beading that required some 360 hours of embroidery alone — or nine full days of work — and feathered numbers that took Paris-based specialist atelier Maison Février 120 hours each to make.
The outfits are arrayed in installations by Belgian artist, designer and opera director Christophe Coppens, who also designed accessories and objects for the anniversary exhibition.
On view until Nov. 26, the exhibition forms a triptych with “Edouard,” a trilingual coffee table tome to be published by Belgium’s Borgerhoff & Lamberigts on Thursday, and Natan’s fall 2023 couture show staged last July in Paris.
With words by veteran journalist Veerle Windels, the book chronicles the brand’s four decades through hundreds of pictures as well as testimonials from figures like Kaat Debo, chief curator and director of MoMu, and Queen Paola of Belgium, who expressed her “delight” to have been able to take part in the brand’s beginnings and still found Natan color-filled collections “a feast for the eyes” even after being a client for four decades.
Vermeulen’s foray into fashion began by happenstance. As a 22-year-old interior design graduate, he was looking for an office on a budget when he stepped into 158 Avenue Louise, a stately townhouse that also housed Jacqueline Leonard, a seamstress who had worked for the 1930s couture house founded by Paul Natan and was winding down the business.
That celadon dress changed everything for Vermeulen and the nearly-shuttered house.
After designing it for his mother ahead of his brother’s 1983 wedding and having it made, quite logically, by the seamstress in the same building, Vermeulen thought he’d go back to his then-day job.
But that was counting without the word-of-mouth effect of a 600-strong guest list that conflated the dress having been made by the former Natan ateliers with the young decorator having taken over the house.
“People kept asking if I was in fashion so I thought I should stop saying I wasn’t,” he quipped. “If they were going to order something, the sewing machines were still there, we could get a seamstress, so why not sell a couple dresses?”
Following the success of those initial orders, Vermeulen and the budding brand leaned into a dressier, occasion-driven direction, also inspired by the women in his family who’d travel to Paris to order couture and bespoke designs.
For his brand’s name, Vermeulen ended up choosing Paul Natan’s last name. Not only did it feel easier to pronounce for non-Belgians than his own but it also still had a solid reputation. After all, his mother had worn a Paul Natan dress for her engagement.
Another seminal moment followed within two years. Then-Princess Paola, the consort of future King Albert II of Belgium, attended the first Natan fashion show, put on by Vermeulen as part of a charity fundraiser.
Her subsequent choice of Natan for an official engagement abroad catapulted the decorator-turned-designer into European royal circles.
Four decades later, Natan is still headquartered in that handsome townhouse on Avenue Louise, with another atelier in central Brussels, and has a headcount that tops 60, including staff in its Amsterdam and Paris flagships.
Belgium and the Netherlands accounts for 60 percent of its client base, with France and Luxembourg amounting to 35 percent.
Business is healthy thanks to 120 points of sale around the world, including eight Natan stores and a corner in Le Bon Marché, where the brand is among the top performing labels on the department store’s second-floor “timeless” multi-brand segment, according to the fashion company.
With five retailers in the U.S. — in New York, Florida and most recently the Midwest — the brand is looking at stepping up its efforts there, either through an agent or directly.
Owing to Argentina-born Queen Maxima of the Netherlands wearing the brand for public engagements, around 40 percent of visits to the Natan website come from South America.
And Vermeulen was appointed baron by King Philippe of Belgium in 2017 for enriching his homeland’s cultural landscape.
But for all these accomplishments, Vermeulen mock-shuddered at any suggestion of nostalgia. “I respect the past but fashion always projects into the future,” he said, echoing Coco Chanel’s sentiment that a just-finished show was already out of fashion.
“So this is already vintage,” he quipped, with a sweeping motion toward the designs lined up on a monumental orange-red plinth.